The Pains of Being Pure at Heart’s second album is a lot like that scene in She’s All That when Freddie Prinze Jr. comes to pick up dorky Rachael Leigh Cook and she walks down the stairs wearing a sleek black dress, not her paint-splattered overalls, and Freddie realizes how conventionally attractive she is under all that geek attire. The feeling is unmistakable; Belong is a post-makeover reveal, and The Pains of Being Pure at Heart look beautiful. We think to ourselves, guarded, but cautiously optimistic, that this might even be love.
But music fans aren’t square-jawed, prom king dreamboats; maybe we prefer the art-room overalls to that black dress. As soon as we register our feelings of affection, we begin to worry that maybe this is too pretty, too Noxzema-clean for us. Yes, this is love, but it’s also fear and insecurity, alienation. We wonder, is this the same person we fell for in the first place? Maybe they’re changing while we’re busy staying the same. Maybe we’re just a phase they’re going through.
Belong makes it obvious enough that The Pains of Being Pure at Heart aren’t making music for us anymore, at least not exclusively. Sure, they’re no less geeky now that they’ve had their makeover — recruiting Alan Moulder and Flood to handle production is a total dork move — but there’s a sense of accessibility that is slightly worrying. One need not hear the references to The Smashing Pumpkins in the title track’s crunchy, compressed guitars or the country-tuning of “Anne With an E” to be won over by the group’s charm offensive. The homage to The Cure’s “In Between Days” on “My Terrible Friend” is a cute touch, but it’s not exactly an obscure reference; are we meant to be impressed or insulted? “Heart in Your Heartbreak’s” chorus is tremendous, but the lyrics feel dumbed down for mass appeal. And their debut was many things — horny, precocious, snide — but it was never dumbed-down.
While they’ve fixed what wasn’t broken — the transgressive attitude, the distortion, the deliberately shitty sound quality — The Pains of Being Pure at Heart have also corrected some of their past flaws. Belong is less front-loaded than the eponymous debut, and it feels less half-assed or amateurish. The hooks sink deeper now, and we’re reeled in, helplessly. But at times the album feels too bright, too chipper and polished, more reminiscent of Jodi Lyn O’Keefe than Rachael Leigh Cook. At times they sound, improbably, like Sixpence None The Richer, and it’s hard not to think that this is soundtrack-grade material, hardly the sort of thing misfits obsess over and build cults around.
Maybe the problem is ours. We like the courtship phase, but man, relationships are scary. Forget about committing to one person, one band; it’s difficult enough committing to our own feelings. We like the shyness, the shoegazing, the winsome, wallflower routine because they’re endearing, intimate, and safe. Confidence, on the other hand, is intimidating and anything but safe. Maybe we should just break up with them before they inevitably break up with us. But we have something really special here; is it stupid that we let insecurity get in the way of our enjoyment?
Bands don’t often clean up so nicely, especially not without losing some ineffable quality, and The Pains of Being Pure at Heart deserve to be appreciated for that. After all, Freddie Prinze Jr. wasn’t a dick because he couldn’t see the beauty in pre-makeover Rachael Leigh Cook, but because he dated her on a dare from Paul Walker. Belong is beautiful, but The Pains of Being Pure at Heart’s shaggy debut was no less attractive. Even in the midst of their Pygmalion moment, The Pains of Being Pure at Heart have retained most of what we loved about them while also finding new ways to dazzle us, to make us swoon. And so here we are, waiting slack-jawed at the bottom of the stairs, wondering how long it’ll be until they walk out that door, leaving us behind; whether or not we follow is our choice.